Up to code

Chris D’Elia vs. Eminem, the death of Auto-Tune, Rigoletto and more.

Whoa @Eminem is fire!!!! pic.twitter.com/xRv59aK0Jq

— Chris D’Elia (@chrisdelia) September 1, 2018

“If you look carefully at my lips,” cautions Tom Frost in David Cronenberg’s film adaptation of William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, “you’ll realize that I’m actually saying something else.”

I always adored Señor Wences, the ventriloquist who appeared frequently on bygone variety shows like Ed Sullivan and Johnny Carson. Long before Rob Brydon was a twinkle in Steve Coogan’s eye, Wences invented the man-in-the-box speech technique with a smart exchange between a beautifully built marionette called Cecilia Chicken and the head of a claustrophobic old codger who’d ultimately reassure audiences from his confines: “S’okay? S’okay. S’alrite? S’alrite.”

“Every emission is by its very essence ventriloquism,” writes the Slovenian philosopher Mladen Dolar, in his book A Voice and Nothing More. What makes the comedian Chris D’Elia’s Eminem impression so funny is that he uses Mathers as his own ventriloquist dummy, proverbially sticking his hand where the sun don’t shine, moving its mouth, crudely approximating the rapper’s self-serious rhythm and cadence, but lapsing regularly into gibberish and absurdity. The effect is akin to the popular video series “Bad Lip Reading” — that delightfully acousmatic dislocation of voice and body. “The fact that we see the aperture does not demystify the voice,” reminds Dolar: “on the contrary, it enhances the enigma.”

A Response to Simon Reynolds

I am still thinking about Simon Reynolds’ exhaustive and enjoyable Pitchfork long-form piece on the death and life of Auto-Tune, a fine work of research on the ubiquitous digital frequency enhancement technology that defines the work of artists like T-Pain and Kanye West.

Whereas in the recent past the human body might have been measured against machinery — Philip Glass’s mechanical compositions, for instance, or Colin Stetson approximating programmed tempos with his array of horns and brass — we aspire now to a degree of perfection that is equivalent to digitization: i.e. the YouTube singer Emma Robinson, who side-yodels a perfect imitation of Auto-Tune’s aesthetic artifacts. Unlike this mortal coil, though, anything digitized can be reproduced ad infinitum; the voice can be manipulated, improved, degraded, compressed, expanded, flipped, inverted, smoothed, squished or stretched in time, with all of it — each state in the process — preserved forever.

One little idiom that Reynolds offhandedly wrote caught my eye: “up to code.” I’m sure he intended it to mean “being up to a certain standard,” but “up to code” is also an interesting turn of phrase that suggests that code is a transcendent, aspirational state, that we can now elevate our imperfect voices up to code’s flawless ideal.

“As the technological nonconscious expands, the sedimented routines and habits joining human behaviour to the technological infrastructure continue to operate mostly outside the realm of human awareness,” writes N. Katherine Hayles in a 2006 article entitled “Traumas of Code,” “coming into focus as objects of conscious attention only at moments of rupture, breakdown and modifications and extensions of the system.” In the case of Auto-Tune, we become conscious of it when the effect is exaggerated to the point of being obvious to the ear: when Cher’s voice skips jaggedly rather than sliding smoothly between notes, for example, or the staccato flailing of software in Daft Punk’s “One More Time.”

For Hayles, computer code is akin to consciousness: the superficial operations we undertake every day are like the computer screen’s flat and invisible interface; the subconscious, or nonconscious, routines that run in the background of our minds are like the arcane language of digital code that make the human machine function, sometimes in unexpected or unpredictable ways. “No longer natural,” says Hayles, “human‐only language increasingly finds itself in a position analogous to the conscious mind that, faced with disturbing dreams, is forced to acknowledge it is not the whole of mind.” Auto-Tune is a virus that infects human language, reproducing us in the digital master’s perfect voice.

Rigoletto, Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier, Sept. 22

Picture if you will Beavis, of Beavis and Butt-Head fame, playing the part of Rigoletto in Verdi’s tragic opera about a doomed court jester who becomes progressively more embroiled in misfortune after a grieving Monterone curses him. I imagine Beavis running frantically around the stage, high as a kite on caffeinated snacks and drinks, blue Metallica t-shirt stretched over his enormous head, shouting at the top of his lungs: “I am the great Rigoletto! Are you threatening me?”

CMD, “When We Interface,” Haptic Controls (Jacktone Records)

A metaphysical question that surrounds digital technologies is whether or not they can retain an indexical relationship to reality — whether something real is preserved in the transformation of mechanical energy into digital storage. Computers eliminate weak signals, forcing ambiguous impulses to be only either zeroes or ones. “We are physically implicated in the virtual realms we inhabit,” argues the scholar Laura Marks in her book Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media, “and far from divorcing ourselves from the world when we enter electronic spaces, we are more connected than we can imagine.”

Jessica Moss, “Particles” (excerpt), Entanglement (Constellation Records)

To adapt a Sarah Silverman phrase, we’re all just particles, cutie. Only entanglement holds us together. ■